A fierce legal battle is currently being waged between preservationists and the City of New York (“City”) over a parcel of land in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, known as Marx Brothers Playground.  The parcel, which is located between 96th and 97th Streets on Second Avenue, is named after legendary comics Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, who were raised at nearby 179 East 93rd Street.  The 1.5-acre public recreation area was created in 1947, and currently contains soccer and baseball fields.  The portion of the site where the playground was located is temporarily being used by the Metropolitan Transit Authority as a staging area for the construction of the Second Avenue Subway.  The entire site is slated for redevelopment by a private developer, who plans to construct a high-rise, mixed-use building containing more than 1,200 apartments, three schools and commercial space.

Although City Parks Department’s leaf logo adorns the site, the property is officially classified as a “jointly operated playground” or “JOP” because it was established under the joint jurisdiction of both the Parks Department and Department of Education, which operates an adjacent vocational high school.  Typically, a JOP is used by the students of the adjacent school during the school day, and the general public outside of school hours.

In an effort to stop the proposed project, preservationists recently commenced an Article 78 proceeding, entitled Carnegie Hill Neighbors, Inc. v. City of New York (Index No. 161375/20017). The preservationists claim, among other things, that Marx Brothers Playground is parkland and, as such, cannot be conveyed by the City to a private developer without State legislation authorizing the termination of its use as a park and its transfer from the City.  Other opponents of the project fear that the redevelopment of the playground will create a slippery slope that will lead to private developers targeting other City-owned recreation facilities.  City officials, on the other hand, insist that the space is a playground, as its name suggests, and not parkland.  They also point out that the City plans to relocate and replace the playground elsewhere on the block.

What appears to be a minor matter of semantics is actually crucial to the outcome of the dispute.  That is because under the State’s public trust doctrine, parks cannot be “alienated” or used for an extended period for non-park purposes without State legislative approval.  The City claims that there is no similar requirement for playgrounds.  A parcel of land may constitute parkland either by express dedication, such as by deed or legislative enactment, or by implied dedication, such as by a continuous use of the property as a public park or recreation area.  Once land is dedicated to parkland use, the dedication is irrevocable absent specific State legislative approval.

The public trust doctrine can trace its roots to the nearly century-old case of Williams v. Gallatin, 229 NY 248 (1920), when a taxpayer sought to enjoin the City’s Commissioner of Parks from leasing the Central Park Arsenal Building to the Safety Institute of America, arguing that the transaction was “foreign to park purposes.” In prohibiting the lease, the Court of Appeals found that a park was a recreational pleasure area set aside to promote public health and welfare and, as such, “no objects, however worthy…which have no connection with park purposes, should be permitted to encroach upon [parkland] without legislative authority plainly conferred.” The Court stated that the legislative will was that Central Park “should be kept open as a public park ought to be and not be turned over by the commissioner of parks to other uses. It must be kept free from intrusion of every kind which would interfere in any degree with its complete use for this end.”

Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the City Council and State Legislature had apparently determined that Marx Brothers Playground was, in fact, parkland, because the City Council submitted a “Home Rule Request” to the State Legislature seeking authority to “alienate” or discontinue its use as parkland.  The Legislature quickly acted on the request and passed bills (A. 8419/S. 6721) entitled “[a]n Act in relation to authorizing discontinuance of the use as parkland of the land in the City of New York commonly known as the Marx Brothers Playground.”  Opponents of the City’s plan appealed to the Governor to veto the legislation.  Governor Cuomo eventually signed the legislation, but he attached a “chapter amendment” in the form of a memorandum that ordered Rose Harvey, Commissioner of the State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, to “investigate all of the property’s historical records, uses, and any other factor relevant to the land’s designation.”

As a result of this unusual move by the Governor, the City must now wait for Commissioner Harvey’s assessment before it can proceed with its plans.  It will also have to wait for the pending lawsuit to play out in the Supreme Court.

It is well established that zoning codes and regulations are in derogation of property owners’ rights in and to the use of their property. Zoning restricts the use of land which was otherwise free of restrictions.  An owner’s rights in use of land are among the oldest and enjoy the most protection under common law and state and federal constitutions. Therefore, the courts of New York have regularly and consistently held that (1) any such codes and regulations must be strictly construed and (2) any ambiguity must be construed against the municipality and in favor of the property owner:

“Since zoning regulations are in derogation of the common law, they must be strictly construed against the municipality which has enacted and seeks to enforce them. Any ambiguity in the language used in such regulations must be resolved in favor of the property owner.”

Because of the heightened scrutiny of zoning regulations for ambiguity, they are difficult to draft and often subject to litigation – which can get deep into the weeds of statutory construction and even grammar. For example, where a zoning code required site plan review for “any new construction or any addition thereto in excess of 2000 sq. ft.,” the Zoning Board found that the limitation of 2,000 sq. ft. applied only to “any addition” and not to “any new construction.” The Third Department reversed, in part because there was no comma between “thereto” and “in excess of.” Your high school English (or Latin) teacher would rejoice at the deconstructive analysis.

Other examples: Does prohibition of car storage prohibit a parking garage, where there is no definition of “storage” in the code? (Answer = No; parking garage is OK) Is a code validly applied which does not allow an owner to “store” a boat in the front yard, where there is, again, no definition of how long a boat must be in the front yard to be deemed to be “stored” there? (Answer = Code not valid because of ambiguity.) Can a code require building permits for all construction “other than ordinary repairs that are not structural?” (Answer = No; code invalidly applied because there was no definition of what constitutes “ordinary” or “not structural” repairs.) Is a helicopter pad an “airport” which is defined as a landing area that is used “regularly?” (Answer = Yes; it was used frequently enough to be deemed “regular.”)

A recent code amendment in an East End municipality requires that driveway gates must have a “setback to the street” of no less than 20 feet or 40 feet (depending on lot size). What is the “street?” The paved roadway? The lot line dividing the private property from the municipality’s right-of-way for the road? The difference could be 10 or 15 feet or more of unpaved verge or shoulder between the pavement and the lot line.

The difficulty in drafting is highlighted by these cases which pit the purportedly “obvious” reading of the code against the rule of strict construction – resolving any ambiguity in favor of the property owner. The burden on the municipality is especially acute where municipal officials come up with different interpretations. The statute is certainly vague and ambiguous when reasonable municipal minds differ – when “reasonable enforcement officers could come to different conclusions” – and they actually did.

Moreover, the New York courts have rejected the argument that Zoning Boards have the authority to remove the ambiguity by choosing the interpretation that the Board prefers. Rather, the courts recognize that while a board’s interpretation is entitled to deference in most situations, where the statute is ambiguous the question becomes a matter of law and the usual deference does not apply.

In a recent Zoning Board case, the same beneficial owners had a residence on one lot and a tennis court, without a home, on another immediately adjacent lot. There was no dispute that the tennis court was a valid subordinate use to the adjacent residence. However, the municipality would not approve a certificate of occupancy for the tennis court because there was no residence on the court property. There was no direct prohibition in the zoning code of an accessory use on a lot without a principal use. The municipality relied solely and entirely on the code’s definition of accessory use as:

“A subordinate use, building or structure customarily incidental to and located on the same lot occupied by the main use, building or structure. The term . . .”accessory structure” may include a . . . tennis court. . . .” (Emphasis added)

The owners sought relief in two separate ways. First, they argued for an interpretation that the code did not require that the tennis court and the dwelling be on the same lot because the word “customarily” modified both “incidental to” and “located on the same lot.” Therefore, an accessory structure is defined as only customarily located on the same lot as the main use. “Customarily” does not mean “always” or “required.” At the very least, the code was ambiguous on this point and, they argued, could not be used by the municipality to deny the owners the right to maintain the tennis court on the lot by itself.

The owners also sought a variance to allow the stand-alone tennis court in the event that the Zoning Board rejected their ambiguity argument. The Zoning Board rejected the argument that the ambiguity of the code section made it unenforceable, finding that they had regularly interpreted the code against the owners’ position. However, the Zoning Board granted the variance allowing the tennis court to exist without a main use on the same lot. A court might have overturned the Board’s contention that it had the right to interpret the ambiguous language in favor of the municipality, since that issue is a matter of law and the interpretation must be in favor of the property owner. But the bottom line is that the applicants got their tennis court and probably don’t care that it was by variance and not by voiding or interpreting an ambiguous code provision – and an Article 78 was averted.

And therein lies the point of this blog: The “ambiguity” rule can be difficult for applicants because courts can, and do, find that the code is not so ambiguous after all. On the other hand, zoning and planning Boards – and, especially, their counsel – know that the “ambiguity” rule is deep-rooted in New York law and that the courts do not hesitate to apply the rule as a matter of law, without deference to the boards. The bottom line is that making a legitimate “ambiguity rule” argument at the municipal board level can be successful in itself, but it is perhaps most important as a prod to the board to grant a variance or site plan or other municipal approval.

A not-so-clear code provision can be very helpful in obtaining a municipal approval!

 

 

 

 

On December 12, 2017, the New York State Court of Appeals issued a joint decision on the appeal of two Article 78 proceedings challenging the same proposed development. The two appeals, Friends of P.S. 163 v Jewish Home Lifecare and New York State Department of Health and Wright v New York State Department of Health, sought to annul a decision of the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), approving the construction of a 414-bed residential facility for elderly and disabled individuals on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  The NYSDOH was designated as the lead agency under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”).   One set of petitioners were the parents of children attending a public elementary school located next door to the facility’s proposed location. The other set of petitioners were tenants living in apartment buildings that surround the facility’s proposed location.

Petitioners complained that the NYSDOH’s SEQRA review was procedurally and substantively flawed and did not adequately address the risks of exposure to hazardous materials, in particular, lead-contaminated soil and airborne lead, as well as exposure to construction noise. In affirming the Appellate Division, which had reversed the decision of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals dismissed both challenges and upheld the NYSDOH’s decision.

The Court of Appeals went through an extensive analysis of what the NYSDOH did prior to issuing its SEQRA Findings Statement. This included: (1) a Phase I environmental site assessment that did not identify any recognized environmental conditions; (2) a Phase II environmental site assessment that included 38 soil samples taken from areas within the footprint of the proposed facility and nearby locations outside the footprint and also included groundwater samples; (3) scoping for the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS); (4) preparation of the DEIS; (5) two public hearings on the DEIS; (6) preparation and filing of the final environmental impact statement (FEIS); and (7) preparation and adoption of the SEQRA Findings Statement.

The Court of Appeals noted that the sampling detected levels of lead in the soil that were typical of sites containing urban fill and were below the restricted residential soil cleanup objectives used by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In addition, the NYSDOH determined that certain mitigative measures would be required to handle, monitor and contain the lead-contaminated soil during construction. As to potential levels of airborne lead dust, the NYSDOH determined that using certain monitoring and mitigation measures during construction would ensure that concentrations of airborne lead dust would not exceed the national ambient air quality standards. As to noise, the NYSDOH conducted modeling to assess potential impacts and assess abatement techniques to control noise. It also relied upon New York City’s Environmental Quality Review Technical Manual to minimize the exceedance of certain decibel limits during construction.

Some of the mitigation measures imposed by the NYSDOH in its SEQRA Findings Statement for the lead-contaminated soil included: (1) extensive construction health and safety plans; (2) a remedial action plan; (3) requiring tarps on trucks; (4) requiring wetting soil during excavation and loading onto the trucks; (5) requiring proper off-site disposal of the soil; (6) vehicle inspections; (7) real-time monitoring of dust levels; and (8) requiring soil vapor barriers for the cellar and sidewalls of the new facility.  The noise-related impacts would be controlled by: (1) ten-foot sound barriers, which would be increased to sixteen feet for classrooms closest to the construction; (2) interior acoustic windows in classrooms facing the construction site; (3) window air conditioning units for certain classrooms; and (4) prohibiting noisy construction activities during the school’s annual testing periods.

In their Article 78 proceedings, petitioners contended that the NYSDOH used flawed assessment methodologies, relied upon outdated standards, failed to adequately mitigate environmental damage of the proposed construction, and failed to adequately consider alternative mitigation measures. In particular, petitioners asserted that the developer should have been required to install central air conditioning in the school and tent the excavation.

Petitioners initially prevailed, getting the Supreme Court to annul and vacate the NYSDOH approval. That was a short-lived victory, as the Appellate Division reversed and dismissed the two proceedings, finding that the trial court has inappropriately substituted its judgment for the expertize of the NYSDOH. The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and the Court of Appeals affirmed the appellate court.

The Court of Appeals noted that the court’s role in reviewing the lead agency’s decision under SEQRA is limited to determining whether the decision was made in accordance with lawful procedure, and whether substantively the decision was affected by an error of law, was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion. The Court of Appeals further noted that a reviewing court is not supposed to weigh the desirability of the action or choose among the alternatives.   Rather, it is limited to determining whether the agency took a “hard look” at relevant areas of environmental concern and made a “reasoned elaboration” for the grounds of its decision. Using those standards, the Court of Appeals found that the NYSDOH had relied upon the appropriate standards, had carefully considered the potential environmental harm and acted within its authority in choosing among the alternatives, further noting the wide latitude given to agencies in conducting SEQRA reviews.

Last week we wrote about a United States Supreme Court case Murr v. Wisconsin and its impact locally. Since that post, the Petitioner, Donna Murr, contacted the author to provide us with an update to her family’s situation.

After the Supreme Court decision in June, legislation was introduced in both the Wisconsin State Senate and the Wisconsin State Assembly. This legislation – among other things – sought to prohibit a state, county, town or village agency from merging a substandard lot with another lot without the consent of the affected property owner.

We are pleased to report that the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate both passed the legislation in early November, and on November 27, 2017 Governor Scott Walker – with Donna Murr by his side – signed the bill into law. As a result, the Murr’s lots can be developed separately. As Ms. Murr noted in her email “We spent 10 years in the courts and 4 months in the Wisconsin legislature! Crazy right?”

On another note, Aram Terchunian of First Costal Corporation contacted the author and provided a note of caution. Mr. Terchurian rightly pointed out that Tidal Wetlands – Land Use Regulations contains an automatic merger provision for substandard lots. Indeed, at 6 CRR-NY 661.6 (b) the regulation addresses lots within the wetland jurisdiction that are substandard. Under §661.6 (a)(5) the minimum lot area for lots connected to a community sewage system is 20,000 square feet, and 40,000 square feet is required for lots not connected to a community sewage system. According to the Regulations, substandard lots as defined above “in the same ownership may be treated together as one lot”.

So know that while a property might not merge because of zoning regulations, it may merge because of wetland regulations.

Thank you to both Donna and Aram for their contributions to this blog.

The stakes could not be higher; would the property yield one or two waterfront building lots? On June 23, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States decided a case that involved the merger of two parcels of property undersized for development purposes that had come into common ownership. In Murr v. Wisconsin, the Murr family who owned the property appealed a Wisconsin Court of Appeals case that upheld the merger of the lots and denied the Murr’s takings complaint. Ultimately, the decision by the Supreme Court upheld the Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision that the lots had merged and must be one lot for development purposes.

At issue were two waterfront parcels of property on the St. Croix River in the Town of Troy, County of St. Croix in the State of Wisconsin. Initially, the Murr’s parents purchased a parcel of property and constructed a cabin for recreational purposes for their family. Title to the property was taken in the name of the family business, William Murr Plumbing, Inc. Three years later, Mr. and Mrs. Murr purchased the adjoining lot as an investment. The lot was titled in the Murrs’ personal names and remained vacant.

Fast forward to 1994 when the Murr parents gifted the property with the cabin to their six children. One year later the Murr parents gifted the vacant lot to their six children. Two of the Murr children transferred their interests in the property to the four remaining siblings who are the Petitioners.

Meanwhile, in 1976, the State of Wisconsin through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was busy developing regulations concerning the development of lots within the St. Croix River area. These regulations provided minimum lot size and area requirements within those lots after considering wetlands, rights-of-way, slopes, and floodplains. Acknowledging the takings issue, the Department included a “grandfather” clause that exempted lots from regulations if they were held in single and separate ownership. Wisconsin law then went a step further and determined that lots that did not meet the zoning requirements and were not single and separate merged by operation of law and resulted in a single building lot.

By transferring the property in 1994 to their children, the Murrs – at least under Wisconsin Law – stripped a vacant lot of its development rights and effectively merged the properties. To their dismay, the Murr children could not separately sell the property; the proceeds of which they intended to use to improve the cabin.

Background

Upon learning of this possible merger the Murr children applied to the St. Croix County Board of Adjustment (“Board”). This application requested – among others – a variance to “sell or use two contiguous lots in common ownership as separate building sites”. After a public hearing, the Board denied the application in a written opinion.

Thereafter the Murrs appealed the Board’s decision to the Wisconsin Circuit Court. The Wisconsin Circuit Court upheld the Board’s decision to deny the request to treat the lots as single and separate but reversed the Board on the individual variance requests. Both parties appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

In upholding the Circuit Court, the Court of Appeals rejected the fairness argument advanced by the Murrs.  Instead, the Court of Appeals adopted the State of Wisconsin’s argument that grandfathering clauses protected individuals with substandard lots from losing development rights but also protected the environment by merging contiguous properties that come into common ownership.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals denied a Petition to Review.

After failing in their appeal of the denial of the variance requests the Murrs commenced an action alleging a taking of their property without just compensation.

State Takings Claim

Both Wisconsin State and St. Croix County law is consistent in that substandard abutting lots merge unless they are in separate ownership. Thus, the Murrs’ claim was based upon the theory that the State of Wisconsin and County of St. Croix had committed a regulatory taking when it adopted the law that specifically called for the merger of commonly owned undersized, contiguous property.

Relative to takings claims, Wisconsin law provides that “the property of no person shall be taken for public use without just compensation”. Specifically, the Murrs’asserted that applying Wisconsin law had deprived them of the beneficial use of Lot “E” – the unimproved lot. Because of the merger, the Murrs argued that Lot E was deprived of all beneficial use and all economic value.

In granting the summary judgment application of Wisconsin and St. Croix County, the Wisconsin Circuit Court found that the Murrs had retained a recreational and residential use of the property. Based on a professional appraisal, the court further concluded that the market value of the property had decreased less than 10%.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the Circuit Court finding that Lots E and F must be considered as one lot because of the merger and no compensable taking had occurred.

Appeal to the Supreme Court

The Murr’s appealed the Decision to the Supreme Court.

Since 1922 the Supreme Court recognized that a compensable taking can occur where government regulation is so burdensome that it deprives a property owner of all beneficial or productive use of the property.  See Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393 (1922).  In Murr, the issue raised on appeal was whether the Supreme Court should consider the Murr lots as merged or as single and separate lots. In other words should the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and St Croix County regulations dictating an automatic merger of substandard contiguous lots held in common ownership be upheld?

By upholding the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court acknowledged that validity of the merger provision. The Court relied on three factors to uphold the merger provision… First, the Court found that the Wisconsin merger provision was adopted for a specific, legitimate purpose; to protect environmentally sensitive property. Second, the Court found that the Murrs should have expected heightened regulation because of the properties location in an environmentally sensitive area as well as the fact the properties shared a long contiguous border. Finally, the Court observed a lack of financial impact demonstrated by the fact that the property as combined retained 90% of its value.

In the Town of Southampton, the Murr decision should have little impact. Contrary to Wisconsin and St. Croix County, the Southampton Town Zoning Code has no automatic merger provision for substandard contiguous lots held in common ownership. Rather, the Code states that a substandard property is entitled to a building permit if it can demonstrate that it is single and separate from surrounding lots. Single and separate status can be proven through a title company analysis of surrounding lots or a determination of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Local Application

If a substandard lot is held in common ownership and contiguous, an application can be made to the Zoning Board in Southampton to determine if the lot is entitled to single and separate status. In an application for a determination of single and separate status, the Board will undertake an analysis to decide whether the lots maintained separate identities or if one lot was held to benefit another. Through a series of decisions, the Board has developed a test to analyze single and separate applications on a case by case basis.

For other jurisdictions, a property owner must look closely at the zoning law to determine how that jurisdiction treats substandard contiguous lots held in common ownership. Keen vigilance in this area of law is the only way to avoid the fate of the Murrs and lose the right to develop a waterfront lot.

Thirteen federal agencies released a report in November 2017 in which they conclude that humans are the primary cause of climate change. The report, entitled Climate Science Special Report, is of particular concern to Long Islanders, many of whom live by, work near, or enjoy the coast. Another report, issued at the end of November 2017 by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) entitled Fourth Regional Plan – Making the Region Work For All of Us, also addresses climate change and provides a path for the tri-states to collectively address the impacts of climate change.

According to the RPA, there are 167 local governments and over 3,700 miles of tidal coastline in the tri-state region. The RPA suggests that the region’s response to climate change is hampered by four limiting impediments. First, the RPA notes that there is no plan or budget for regional coastal adaptation projects. Second, the RPA notes that most of the region’s local governments lack the staff and resources to address climate change. Third, the RPA notes that although coastal flooding is a regional problem, planning does not occur on a regional level. Rather, it is done on a local basis, resulting in a hodgepodge of conflicting rules, policies and guidelines. Fourth, the RPA notes that the three states have inconsistent coastal zone management programs.

In New York, the New York State Department of State (NYSDOS) administers New York’s coastal zone management program. According to the RPA, New Jersey’s coastal zone management program primarily relies on federal funding. The RPA notes that Connecticut’s coastal zone management program primarily involves the issuance and approval of permits. While these programs are all different, according to the RPA, they share one similar trait. They each have limited power to regulate land use.

The RPA notes that the New York and Connecticut coastal zone management programs address only certain aspects of climate change. For example, the NYSDOS and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation developed model local laws that consider risk from sea level rise, storm surge, and flooding and developed guidance on how coastal areas can use natural resources and processes to deal with those problems. Connecticut requires that planners and developers consider the potential impact of sea level rise, coastal flooding, and erosion patterns on coastal development.

The RPA recommends that New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut create a “regional coastal commission” as a way to address climate change on a regional basis. The RPA envisions the function of this regional coastal commission as follows: (1) producing a regional coastal adaptation plan that is not limited by state or local boundaries; (2) developing science-based standards for coastal development; and (3) coordinating collaborative cross-border projects. The RPA suggests that this can be accomplished through adaptation trust funds that are initially funded by surcharges on insurance policy premiums.

The RPA recommends several “best practices” for the regional coastal commission, primarily to keep it free from political influence. These best practices include structuring the commission according to specialization and subject areas. The RPA also suggests using a “neutral facilitator” to help members work through their differences. The RPA also suggests that the commission have an independent advisory science committee and a central data repository. The RPA further suggests that the trust funds be invested in a “diversified funding portfolio” as a means to becoming financially sustaining, rather than relying upon government funding.

The RPA notes there are role models for successful regional commissions, including the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the Bay Area Regional Collaborative, the Interstate Environmental Commission in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and the multi-state Chesapeake Bay Program.

It remains to be seen whether these three states will agree to establish a regional coastal commission, which would require them to cede certain powers to this commission for the purpose of adapting their coastlines for climate change.

In December 2016, Norwegian developer Statoil won a bid to lease 79,000 acres of underwater land from the federal government for wind energy development.  Statoil’s  wind energy project will be located approximately fourteen miles south of Long Beach and the Rockaways and will extend out to a distance of 30 miles.  The project, to be known as Empire Wind, contemplates erecting 80 to 100 turbines and anticipates producing up to 1,000 megawatts – enough energy to power upwards of one million homes.  Statoil anticipates commencing construction in 2021 and completing construction in 2024.

As part of New York’s plan to reach 50% renewable energy sources by 2030, the State has continued to research, test and identify off-shore areas for wind energy development.  In October 2017, New York identified more than one million acres for the development for future wind farm projects.

Empire Wind hopes to join another wind energy project currently in the planning stages, a 90-megawatt wind farm project located off Long Island’s east end.

In 2009, Scenic Development, LLC (“Scenic”) sought a zone change for the property formerly known as the “Patrick Farm” located in the Town of Ramapo to permit the development of multi-family housing. In three determinations adopted January 25, 2010, the Town Board resolved to (i) approve a findings statement pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) for the proposed zone change, (ii) amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow for the zone change, and (iii) approve the zone change. The Town’s determinations have led to a series of cases challenging these decisions, with three recent decisions discussed below.

Scenic purchased the property in 2001.  The underlying zoning of the property was R-80 when Scenic purchased the property and was subsequently changed to R-40, or one house per 40,000 square feet, when the Town adopted its 2004 Comprehensive Plan. In 2009, when it sought the zone change, Scenic proposed to build 479 housing units on 197 acres of the former farm along the Route 202/306 corridor outside Pomona. Therefore, the zone change would have dramatically increased the density permitted on the property.

Although the project still has not come to fruition, with some additional environmental review as discussed below, the project may still be viable.

Youngewirth v. Town Board of Ramapo

In Matter of Youngewirth v. Town of Ramapo Town Board et al., decided November 8, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department reversed the Supreme Court’s, May 8, 2013 determination which denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding. The appellate court annulled the determinations of the Town Board and remitted the matter back to the Town Board for further proceedings consistent with the decision. Specifically, the Court found that the Town Board did not take the requisite “hard look” pursuant to SEQRA because of its (i) failure to review the environmental impact of the proposed development in close proximity to the existing Columbia Natural Gas Pipeline, (ii) failure to consider the combined impact of the development and pipeline on the environment, (iii) failure to list Columbia Gas as an “interested agency” pursuant to SEQRA, and (iv) failure to make a “reasoned elaboration” for the basis of its determination regarding this issue by not mentioning the potential impacts in its FEIS or findings statement.

The Court, however, sided with the Town on petitioner’s claim that the zone change was in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan and found that petitioner failed to establish a clear conflict with the Comprehensive Plan. The Court also found that petitioner failed to establish that the zone change constituted impermissible spot zoning. The Court further noted that requiring a certain number of affordable housing units was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and was a reasonable condition related to and incidental to the property. However, because the Court found that the approval for the findings statement pursuant to SEQRA was required prior to amending the Comprehensive Plan or granting the proposed zone change, the annulment of the resolution approving the SEQRA findings statement required the annulment of the determinations regarding the Comprehensive Plan and proposed zone change.   Ultimately, the Court remitted the matter back to the Town Board for preparation of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (“SEIS”) to consider the issues related to the gas pipeline.

Shapiro v. Ramapo Planning Board

In the related case of Matter of Shapiro v. Planning Board of Town of Ramapo et al., decided November 8, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department likewise annulled the Supreme Court’s determinations and remitted the matter back to the Planning Board for further review consistent with its decision.  The Planning Board approved Scenic’s three separate applications for final subdivision and site plan approval of three housing projects as part of Scenic’s proposed development of the property.  Here, petitioner alleged that a SEIS was required in connection with the SEQRA review conducted for the proposed development because the applicant, Scenic, failed to obtain a jurisdictional determination from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (“ACOE”) validating the delineation of wetlands on the property. The Court outlined that a lead agency’s determination whether to require an SEIS is discretionary. Specifically, SEQRA in section 6 NYCRR 617.9(a)(7(ii) provides, “the lead agency may require a supplemental EIS limited to the specific adverse environmental impacts not addressed or inadequately addressed in the EIS that arise from (a) changes proposed for the project, (b) newly discovered information, or (c) a change in circumstances related to the project”. Here, petitioners alleged that the Planning Board failed to consider newly discovered information having received a letter indicating that the ACOE reviewed the development plans but not the wetlands delineation. The applicant was required to obtain the ACOE’s jurisdictional wetlands delineation and the Planning Board was required to rely on the ACOE’s federal wetland delineation since wetlands were excluded in part from the yield calculations related to the proposed development. Thus the Court found that the Planning Board failed to take the requisite hard look pursuant to SEQRA and remitted the matter back to the Board for the preparation of an SEIS regarding the presence of wetlands on the property.

Village of Pomona v. Town of Ramapo

The neighboring Village of Pomona also sued the Town Board and Planning Board of Ramapo in two separate actions in which the Supreme Court denied the petitions and dismissed the proceedings. On November 8, 2017, The Appellate Division, Second Department reversed these determinations related to the Scenic proposal as well in Village of Pomona v. Town of Ramapo et al. Here, although the Court found that the Town of Ramapo adequately considered the effect of the proposed development on community character and complied with General Municipal Law §239-m(3) by providing a point-by-point response to the Village’s comments on the application, the Court determined that the lower court should have granted the Village’s petition based on the reasons stated in the Youngewirth decision referenced above.

In all, there have been approximately ten challenges over the years related to the Town of Ramapo’s approvals of Scenic’s proposed development. Although the local land preservation groups claim the recent court decisions as a total win, the Appellate Division made significant findings in support of the Town of Ramapo’s review and reversed the Supreme Court’s determinations on very specific grounds, which, if addressed correctly by the Town, could result in the multi-family development being built.

 

 

A recent decision by the Appellate Division decided that a village zoning code was inapplicable to a water district. As a result, the water district was able to proceed with replacement of one of its massive elevated water storage tanks and the village was powerless to use its zoning powers to either stop the construction or impose restrictions on the structure.

The case, Incorporated Village of Munsey Park v Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, 57 NY3d 154 [2d Dep’t 2017], involved a special district located within the Town of North Hempstead. The special district, the Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, supplies potable water to consumers located within the district’s boundaries. The water district uses its elevated water storage tanks to store water and maintain water pressure. One of the district’s storage tanks is on property owned by the water district that is located within the boundaries of the Village of Munsey Park (“Village”).

The elevated water storage tank in question was built in 1929. The water district determined it was in need of replacement in 2014. The water district developed a plan to replace the 1929 storage tank and held two public hearings about its proposal. Village officials participated in these public hearings. The district revised the plan after the public hearings, partly to accommodate concerns of the Village and Village residents elicited at the hearings.

The finalized plan called for the replacement of the 1929 storage tank with a new tank that would hold 250,000 gallons more than the 1929 tank. In addition, an antennae was proposed to be installed on the new tank to facilitate wireless communication between the district facilities, its employees, and volunteer firemen. The water district determined that the proposed construction plan was immune from the Village zoning code, based upon the principles enumerated in Matter of County of Monroe (City of Rochester), 533 NY 2d 702 [1988].

The Village sued. It sought a declaratory judgment and permanent injunction to prevent the demolition of the 1929 tank and construction of the replacement tank, claiming that the 30 foot height restriction contained in the Village zoning code would be violated by this structure. The trial court ruled in favor of the water district, a finding that was affirmed by the Second Department.

The appellate court discussed the City of Monroe case, in which the Court of Appeals dealt with the applicability of a local zoning code where two governmental entities are in conflict over a proposed project. The Court of Appeals set forth a balancing test in that case to determine if there is immunity from the local zoning code for the other governmental entity. These factors include: (1) the nature and scope of the governmental entity seeking immunity from the local zoning code, (2) the type of zoning restriction involved, (3) the extent of the public interest served by the local zoning code, (4) the effect that the local zoning code would have on the other governmental entity, and (5) the impact on local interests.

Using this balancing test, the Second Department determined that the water district was immune from the Village zoning code. The court further noted that the Village failed to set forth any basis for the Village’s contention that the Village had the exclusive right to evaluate the factors and make this immunity determination.

One other note. The water district  also determined that the project was a Type II action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and, thus, not subject to review under SEQRA. This finding was upheld by the trial and appellate courts. The Second Department explained that since the project involved the “replacement, rehabilitation or reconstruction of a structure or facility, in kind,” it was a Type II action under 6 NYCRR § 617.5[c][2], even though it was going to hold 250,000 more gallons than the 1929 tank.

Because of the essential service at issue in this case, the provision of a safe and reliable source of potable water, it is understandable why the courts would favor the water district over a height restriction in a local zoning code.  If the project involved something less vital, the result may have been different.

Week to week we blog about recent developments in the land use arena, which typically arise in the civil context.  This week, we thought a recent “criminal” case decided by the Supreme Court, Appellate Term, Second Department, was not only particularly interesting, but also, the topic of illegal rental permits is one that many land use practitioners grapple with multiple times during their legal careers.

On October 26, 2017, the Appellate Term decided People v Makrides, 2017 NY Slip Op 51442 (U).  In Makrides, the Village Code Enforcement Officer alleged that on August 20, 2014, he visited property located on Beach Street.  The door was answered by an individual who identified himself as a renter and of no relation to the owner, Marie Makrides, with Beach Street Properties.   Based on a further review of rental permit records, and the lack thereof, the Code Enforcement Officer issued an Information alleging that Makrides was in violation of Village Code Section 205-4, failure to obtain a rental occupancy permit.

The Code Enforcement Officer visited the property again on November 5, 2014; except for the testimony of the alleged renter, the Code Enforcement Officer found the property to again be in violation of  the rental occupancy permit ordinance.

Makrides’ attorney moved to dismiss the accusatory instruments for facial insufficiency (CPL 100.15; 100.40).  Specifically, it was argued that the accusatory instruments “failed to contain facts of an evidentiary nature . . . and that they” were improperly based upon hearsay allegations. The Justice Court denied the motion.

After a non-jury trial, the Court found Makrides to be in violation of the rental permit ordinance and fined her $5,000.00 for each charge.  Makrides appealed.

The Appellate Term reversed both convictions, finding that facial insufficiency is a nonwaivable jurisdictional prerequisite to a criminal prosecution (CPL 100.40).  Finding that the statement made by the renter to be hearsay, and not supported by a deposition, it was an error for the Justice Court to rely on said testimony.  The testimony of the renter is clearly an out of court statement introduced in court for the truth of the matter at hand, to wit; classic hearsay testimony.

Consequently, the Appellate Term held that without said hearsay testimony, the Informations alleging that the defendant failed to obtain a rental occupancy permit –  without saying why it was necessary for her to obtain one – failed to contain “factual allegations . . .  through nonhearsay allegations . . . of the offense charged and defendant’s commission thereof.”

Abiding by principles of judicial restraint, the Court declined to make a further finding that the Port Jefferson Village Rental Permit Ordinance was unconstitutional.  It did, however, require the Village to remit, if paid, the combined $10,000.00 fine to the defendant.